HC Deb 22 July 2004 vol 424 cc501-14 1.20 pm
The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

Earlier this week, the House approved orders specifying 4 November as the date for the referendums in the three northern regions.

Hon. Members

It approved them yesterday!

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Minister was accurate.

Mr. Raynsford

We introduced the orders to fulfil expectations in the regions of referendums in the autumn. Only if the orders are in place before the summer can we have a 4 November date. Yesterday, the House also approved three orders that provide for those referendums to be conducted as all-postal ballots and make provision about expense limits and referendum costs. Approval was given against the background of the Government's commitment to the House that we would not proceed with the all-postal referendums as planned if the Electoral Commission's evaluation report on last June's all-postal pilots produced convincing evidence leading to the conclusion that it would be unsafe to do so. The commission's report was expected by 13 September. We gave our commitment because we take its views very seriously—[Interruption.] We do.

In the debates this week, concerns were raised about all-postal ballots, following some experiences of postal voting in the recent pilots. There are differences of views on all-postal ballots across the House, with particular reservations being strongly voiced in certain localities. This week, the Electoral Commission has also announced that it intends to publish its evaluation report of the June pilots and its recommendations on the future use of all-postal ballots before Parliament returns in September. The debates demonstrated solid support for all-postal voting and the clear expectation of an early referendum in the north-east. None of the concerns raised about all-postal ballots relates to that region. On the contrary, the experience there of all-postal ballots, both in June and in earlier local election pilots, has been consistently positive. The north-east has had longer and more extensive experience of all-postal ballots than any other region, and the availability of all postal voting has been consistently welcomed by the voters.

We have reflected on those developments, and on the range of opinions expressed during the debates on the orders. Except where there is a pressing expectation and overwhelming support for an early all-postal referendum, we have concluded that the right course is not to proceed with the orders setting up referendums on 4 November but to await the Electoral Commission's report before confirming the arrangements. We have therefore decided not to proceed with the orders for the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber. Our commitment to referendums in those regions remains unchanged, but the timetable for their referendums will be affected.

Once the House returns in September we will, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement on how we intend to proceed in those regions, having had the opportunity to consider carefully the commission's report. We are clear, however, that, as we are not proceeding now with the orders, there cannot be referendums on 4 November in those regions. By contrast, all that we have heard from the north-east confirms that it is right to proceed with the orders providing for all-postal referendums in the north-east on 4 November. That is what the people there want and expect, and that is what we are facilitating.

To help people in the north-east make their decision, I am today publishing the draft Regional Assemblies Bill, including explanatory notes and regulatory impact assessment (Cm 6285) and an accompanying policy statement. Those documents set out the purposes, powers and responsibilities that we envisage for elected regional assemblies. The draft Bill and policy statement also cover the establishment, election, constitution and funding of elected assemblies. The Bill is drafted to give each general purposes of economic development, social development and the improvement and protection of the environment, as well as wide-ranging power to take action to further those purposes. There will also be detailed powers relating to specific functions.

Since the publication of the White Paper, we have strengthened the powers of elected regional assemblies in crucial areas such as fire and rescue, stakeholder engagement and planning, and that is reflected in the Bill. We have also developed proposals on learning and skills and transport. Progress on the former is reflected in the policy statement. Under the Bill, decisions currently made by different sets of unelected bureaucrats would be taken by one democratic body elected by the people of the region. Its publication fulfils our commitment to Parliament to publish a draft Bill ahead of any referendum for an elected regional assembly. It demonstrates our commitment to establish elected assemblies where people want them, whether in the north-east, the north-west, Yorkshire and the Humber or, in the course of time, any other region.

The Bill will be an important tool to help the electorate in the north-east make an informed decision on whether to vote for or against an elected assembly in the referendum on 4 November. We intend to introduce a final version of the Bill in Parliament once a region has voted to establish an assembly.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con)


The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

You've got the junior doing it!

Hon. Members

You got your junior to do it!

Mr. Speaker

Order. We should have some calm in the Chamber.

Mr. Jenkin

The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that if he had made the statement my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) would have replied.

The statement just delivered by the Minister for Local and Regional Government is quite incredible, completely unbelievable and utterly cynical. Only yesterday, he urged the House to support the principle of three referendums, but he has the gall and temerity to return within 24 hours to say that he has changed his mind. Only yesterday, he denied that he would do what I predicted. He said that we shall … be prepared not to proceed with an all-postal referendum. However, we must obviously wait to see the evidence."—[Official Report, 21 July 2004; Vol. 424, c. 379.] The evidence will appear in the Electoral Commission report, which will not be published until 27 August, so why has he suddenly changed his mind and decided not to wait for it? Is he as astonished as we are about what he has been sent here to do? Can he assure us that when he addressed the House yesterday, he was speaking, to use a well worn phrase, "in good faith"?

Can anyone remember any Government treating the people of this country—in this case, the people of the north-west and of Yorkshire and the Humber—with such utter contempt and cynicism? It is awesomely ruthless politics suddenly to cut horrendous losses under the cover of a Cabinet reshuffle. This is what new Labour calls "a good day to bury bad news". Talking of reshuffles—

The Deputy Prime Minister

There is no reshuffle.

Mr. Jenkin

None? I wondered whether that was why the right hon. Gentleman did not make the statement himself. I thought today might be his last day on the Front Bench. Are not regional assemblies his life's work? Did he refuse to make the statement because he did not want to trash 20 or more years of commitment to his regional dreams?

This whole episode shows more clearly than ever that the Government have nothing but contempt for Parliament. Hon. Members may have differing opinions about the merits of elected regional assemblies, but we can all agree on one thing—this is no way to run our constitution, our democracy or our country. How much public money has been wasted in those two regions on consultation, the information campaign and the boundary committee review?How many hours of civil service time has been wasted and how much goodwill from the few members of the business community who supported the Government's proposals has been lost? Pity the poor "yes" campaigners, who were led a merry dance for a year or more only to be defeated before a single vote is cast in the referendums.

Will the right hon. Gentleman be straight with the House? When he uses the word "postpone", what he really means is cancel, scrap, finish with, delete, forget about, consign to the dustbin of failed ideas, because the truth is that nobody wants an extra layer of professional politicians leeching more tax out of the pockets of honest, hard-working people.

May I press the Minister on the reason he gives for scrapping only two out of three referendums? Does he not realise how utterly illogical he is being? If an all-postal referendum is unsafe in Yorkshire, how can it be safe in Northumberland? If it is a bad system for Bradford, how can the identical system be okay in Newcastle? If it is prone to corruption in Liverpool, why is it not prone to corruption in Durham or Middlesbrough? If the issue is all-postal voting, why does he not switch to a tried and tested system that we have had running in this country for a couple of hundred years? It is called the polling station and the ballot box.

The reasons the Minister has given for pulling the referendums are a fig leaf—chaff to disguise the real reason. The fact is that a majority of Labour MPs were in covert or open rebellion in the north-west and Yorkshire this week because they know what Ministers have been denying. They know their voters do not want an extra layer of placemen, politicians and bureaucrats. They do not want a costly and wasteful reorganisation of local government. They do not want powers stripped away from local councils, which represent real communities, and placed in the hands of a remote bureaucracy under politicians with virtually no power at all.

Where would just one elected regional assembly leave the British constitution? What started out as a so-called grand plan for comprehensive constitutional settlement in England is today left in tatters. First there were eight regions, then there were three, and now there is one.

As for the Bill, for the Government to announce the draft Bill today just adds to the atmosphere of cynicism. I am grateful to the Minister for sending me an advance copy of his statement, but unfortunately I got the revised copy only after he was on his feet, so I cannot comment on what he means by "the policy statement" that goes with the Bill. It obviously does not have legislative authority. The policy statement will not be included in the Bill.

If the information published today is so significant, why did the Minister deliberately withhold it from the House yesterday, when we had much better time and occasion to debate it? He is still holding the Bill in the Vote Office. He has still not released it for us to look at. If there are so-called new powers in the Bill, how can that be, when hardly more than a few weeks ago the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope) told us in a letter that the White Paper set out all the powers proposed for the assemblies. The Deputy Prime Minister told a meeting in the north of England earlier this year that he was fighting "battles" with his Cabinet colleagues about the powers he wanted for the Bill. His absence from the Dispatch Box today is clear indication that he has lost all his battles.

Few in the Government are committed to the Deputy Prime Minister's pathetic pipe dream, because they can see that elected regional assemblies are unwanted and would become unpopular and expensive tax-raising talking shops that would not create one extra teacher in the classroom, one extra nurse or doctor for the NHS, or one extra policeman on our streets.

Mr. Raynsford

I listened to what the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said and recalled him saying exactly the same thing yesterday. It is nice to know that he is simply recycling old speeches. [HON. MEMBERS: Consistency."] Before we get down to the substance, let me comment on the process.

I phoned the hon. Gentleman this morning to explain that if the other place approved the order before I made the statement, I would announce the publication of the Bill. That is why the draft statement that he had made provision for us not yet being in that position, but I alerted him to the fact, and I apologise if he got the statement only at the last minute. I hope he will understand that that was for technical reasons—the other place approved the order very recently.

The Opposition have consistently opposed any regional devolution and have fought throughout the past two years to prevent referendums from being held in any region. They nod to confirm that. It is pretty rich for an Opposition who have consistently opposed that now to oppose the Government, who have decided that it is right to postpone the referendums in two regions. The Opposition cannot have it both ways.

We as a Government made it clear that we listened to the debate and to the views expressed, and we have amended our proposals. It is pretty rich of the Opposition to criticise us for doing something that they have been urging us to do for a long time. The hon. Gentleman's claim that we are withdrawing from our commitment to regional government is entirely wrong. We remain utterly committed to extending the option of regional government. That is why we are publishing the Bill today. That is a clear statement of our commitment to give the people of the English regions the opportunity to decide whether they wish to exercise those powers in the region through an elected regional assembly.

The Bill shows our commitment. We are not cancelling the referendums in the Yorkshire and Humber and north-west regions. We are simply postponing them, for the very good reason that concerns have been voiced in all parts of the House about all-postal ballots in those two regions. No concerns have been voiced about all-postal ballots in the north-east. On the contrary, we heard last night impressive evidence from speaker after speaker from the north-east about the benefits of all-postal, the extensive experience they have had of all-postal and the effect that that has had on increasing turnout. Listening to the evidence and responding to the views expressed by the House, the Government have changed their position—I accept that entirely, but that is good for democracy. We have listened to the views of hon. Members and acted logically and sensibly on that.

The people will ultimately decide. The test for the Opposition is this: when the people of the north-east come to exercise their decision on 4 November in the referendum that has been provided for by the orders, will the Opposition accept their decision? Will the Opposition confirm that if the people of the north-east vote yes, they will support an elected regional assembly in the north-east of England?

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)

I thank the Minister for the statement, even though I fear this is a sad day for democracy. The real losers are the voters, not just because they have been denied a choice and denied a ballot, but because they have been denied the chance to take power from Whitehall—to elect a regional assembly instead of suffering regional quangos.

What is the Minister's message to the yes campaigners, who have worked so hard already to realise greater democracy in our regions? What hope for the future will he give to the people of the north-west and the Yorkshire region, who have argued for decades for devolution? Will he say how long the postponement will last? Will he give a date? Above all, will he tell the House that Ministers are learning some lessons?

We on the Liberal Benches told the Government that this could happen. From day one we told them it was a mistake to couple devolution with local government reorganisation. From day one we told them that Ministers ought to be giving away more power to regions to win the public support that was needed. So does the Minister have any regrets about the way the Government have approached the matter? Is he proud of the way his Government have handled regional devolution?

Given the embarrassing U-turn by the Government, will the Minister tell the House more about why the Government were forced to come to this sorry decision today? Rather than hiding behind the Electoral Commission or a few Back Benchers, can the Minister confirm that the decision was taken at the insistence of No. 10 Downing street? Is it not true that it is the Prime Minister who has tried to stall regional devolution from the outset? It is welcome that the draft powers Bill has been published today, but when will the Government allow a debate on it?

This statement leaves the Deputy Prime Minister not only embarrassed, but severely wounded. By letting the Prime Minister get his way time and again, his own long-held ambitions have been thwarted. Today, the Chancellor has gained a new ally.

Mr. Raynsford

Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman says, voters are not being denied the option of devolution. There will be a postponement—I entirely accept that—but I have made it clear that we are committed to giving the people of the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber that opportunity.

The hon. Gentleman asked when we will take the decision. As I made clear in the statement, we will look closely at the Electoral Commission's report, which we expect to be delivered in late August, and, with the Speaker's approval, we will make a statement to the House in September to set out the timetable. It is a postponement, not a cancellation.

The message to yes campaigners is that this issue is hugely important and must be handled in the most positive and constructive way. We have responded to voices on both sides of the House raising concern about all-postal ballots. In the light of those, we decided to wait until we can consider the Electoral Commission's report before reaching a final decision. However, we remain utterly committed to people having the option of regional devolution.

The hon. Gentleman asked about more powers. I hope that when he reads the Bill, he will realise that an extensive series of powers will be available to elected regional assemblies, and that progress has been made since the White Paper. The hon. Gentleman will make a judgment when he has had a chance to read the Bill.

On local government reorganisation, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We do not believe that it is right to have additional tiers of government. We believe that it is right to have unitary local government if there is regional government. In all regions, the experience of the process involving the boundary committee has shown how much more mature local government can be in considering reorganisation than it was during the period under the Conservative Government when the Banham review caused it considerable anxiety and discord.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the basis of the decision. I repeat that the change of timetable has been prompted by consideration of views expressed in this House. The decision was finally taken in Cabinet this morning.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)

It is a pity that the Deputy Prime Minister, who this morning spent his time personally ringing round regional newspaper editors, was unable to make a statement to the House himself. He must feel powerfully let down by Labour MPs and by the Prime Minister. The sudden accession of virtue by which the Minister says that views expressed in this House led to the deferment defies all credibility given that the Government have consistently swept away all hon. Members' demands for them to wait until the Electoral Commission reports.

Will the Minister give the costs of the information campaign and meetings in the two regions where there has been a postponement, and confirm that they will be verified by the Audit Commission or the National Audit Office? Will he confirm that there will not be a referendum in either of those two regions this side of the general election? Will he further confirm that there will be no local government reorganisation in the absence of elected regional government?

Mr. Raynsford

The right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect, is simply wrong to say that we have not previously shown any concern for views expressed in this House. As he knows very well from our discussion last night, we have listened to his views about the availability of dropping-off points for people in rural areas and have made changes to facilitate that. That is an indication of our genuine desire to listen to and respond to views expressed in the House, as we have in relation to this postponement.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about costs. Against the total budget of £5 million, we have already spent £2.2 million. We intend to spend a further £0.5 million on the "Your Say" campaign in the north-east. Of the £2 million that had been allocated for "Your Say" in the north-west and in Yorkshire and Humber, £1.4 million will not be spent, while £600,00 will be transferred to enhanced fire safety publicity to make use of pre-booked television times. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman appreciates that that is a sensible use of resources. We are responding in the most sensible way.

On the timetable, we have made it clear that we will report back to the House in September after we have seen the Electoral Commission's report, and then set out our proposals for the new timetable.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)

While I hope that devolution will come to the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber in due course, I believe that the north-east, with its distinct history and culture, and its determination to help to build its own future, will be able to lead the way and to be the pioneer for this new form of government in England. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the case for the north-east is made across government with purpose and enthusiasm?

Mr. Raynsford

I echo my right hon. Friend's remarks about the commitment of people in the north-east. I assure her that all those of us who believe, as many of us do passionately, in the case for regional devolution will be doing our utmost to ensure that people in the north-east have full information about the options. I am confident that they will vote yes for regional devolution, which has been a long-term aspiration of the region, and that in doing so they will point the way forward for other parts of the country.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con)

The Minister claimed that there was overwhelming support for a referendum in the north-east. He should pay some regard to opinion polls published in the region showing that the majority of people did not even know that the referendum was to be held.

If the Electoral Commission reported on 27 August that the whole postal ballot system is flawed, would the Minister postpone the referendum in the north-east?

Mr. Raynsford

I understand that the hon. Gentleman will feel like a threatened minority in the north-east, as he is the only Conservative MP in the region. That is an indication of the lack of support that his party, which is opposed to regional devolution, has there. I will say no more about his first point.

As for what would happen if the Electoral Commission reported at the end of the August that it was unsafe to proceed, we have already said that in that case we would not proceed with an all-postal referendum. However, there is absolutely no evidence of any serious concern in the north-east, which has had more experience of all-postal voting than any other region. A series of pilots have taken place in local authorities, and there were by-elections in 2000, 2002 and 2003. Last night, we heard about a local government by-election that had a 64 per cent. turnout. That all points to the confidence of the north-east region in all-postal voting. On that basis, we think that it is right to proceed, but of course we will look at the Electoral Commission's report when it comes out.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend, and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, on having the common sense to listen to the voices of Members of Parliament in the north-west and of the public in that region, who, by their eloquent silence, have indicated that they do not recognise that there is any such place as the north-west in terms of politics, economics or culture. I thank my right hon. Friend for giving those of us who believe that city regions are the way forward for devolution the space to develop our arguments, and assure him that that campaign starts now.

Mr. Raynsford

It may disappoint my hon. Friend to learn that we are postponing, not cancelling, a referendum in the north-west. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] The argument for regional devolution in the north-west will be engaged at a slightly later date than was previously arranged. However, I understand his concerns. As he has not been an advocate of this policy, I am sure that he is pleased about our announcement to postpone.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con)

I welcome this climbdown from a costly, irrelevant and unwanted proposal for an extra tier of government in the north-west. However, I remain concerned that throughout the process the Government have assumed people's support despite having no evidence for it. If they intend to continue considering the possibility of holding referendums on regional government, can that decision be transferred to an independent body that can make rational decisions without party politics getting in the way and assess the very low level of interest in regional government? That would finally put paid to the whole idea.

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman appears not to know that a detailed process, involving soundings, was undergone in all the English regions and it demonstrated greater interest in the northern regions than in others. In comparison with the response to normal consultation exercises, the number of respondents from all three northern regions was significant. However, we have always taken the view that, ultimately, it is up to the people to decide in a referendum. That is why we have provided for referendums. The people will decide on 4 November in the north-east and later in the north-west and Yorkshire and Humber and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will respect their view when they make their decision in those referendums. That is the ultimate test.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op)

I am deeply disappointed by my right hon. Friend's statement but will he give the House a guarantee that the people of the north-west will have the opportunity to vote in a referendum for a regional assembly? They will thus have the same opportunities as are being given to people in the north-east, about which I am pleased. Does he agree that the problems of the north-south divide and the unaccountability of regional quangos will continue unless resolute action is taken? When he says that he will listen to people's voices on the matter, will he guarantee listening to those who positively seek change to give a better deal to people who live in the north-west and not solely to negative voices inside and outside Parliament and those who simply want to maintain the status quo, with all its inequalities?

Mr. Raynsford

Of course, I was here last night when my hon. Friend spoke eloquently about the problems of the north-south divide and argued passionately for people in the north-west to have the opportunity to vote for regional devolution. I give her the assurance that she seeks. People in the north-west will have that option. It will not be exercised on 4 November, for the reasons that I have given, but we will report back to the House in September and make the timetable clear then. I assure my hon. Friend that we will listen to the views of all parties. Obviously, we shall listen to the views of those who seek change, as she does.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con)

Has the Minister no comprehension of the damage that uncertainty about the matter does to local government in North Yorkshire? Even if we had a referendum on 4 November, civil servants have already left their posts for better pastures because the plans mean that they cannot envisage a future for their local council. If we are considering only a postponement, not a cancellation, the uncertainty will continue. The Minister owes us an explanation of when he believes that the ballot will take place. If he is genuinely in favour of it, why cannot we have polling stations?

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point about uncertainty in local government because of reorganisation. I am conscious of that and I want to ensure that we make a statement in the House in September to clarify the position so that the uncertainty does not continue any longer than absolutely necessary. I accept it has an effect on people who work in local authorities.

By contrast with the atmosphere in the 1990s when the Banham process engendered considerable delay, concern and apprehension in local government, the current process has generally been much more positive, although I appreciate that some people are apprehensive about the different options in Yorkshire and Humber. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend knows that Durham and other parts of the north-east have had all-postal ballots for the past three years. That has led to dramatic increases in turnout. The Electoral Commission's analysis of the pilots not only congratulated the relevant councils but pointed out that there was no increase in fraud.

I welcome today's announcement of a referendum on 4 November in the north-east. I look forward to people in the north-east having a say in their future on that day. The Conservative party never gave people such a say when it abolished, for example, Tyne and Wear county council.

Mr. Raynsford

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the considerable and positive experience of the north-east. Twenty-two all-postal voting pilots took place in the north-east before 2004—significantly more than in any other region even though it is the smallest region in the country. That shows the extent to which the north-east has gone further in piloting and testing all-postal voting. As he said, that arrangement has had a positive impact in increased turnout. Few, if any, recorded instances of fraud occurred in the north-east. All that points to the logic of proceeding in the north-east with an all-postal ballot on 4 November. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's welcome of that and I have no doubt that he will be a powerful advocate for devolution in the region between now and the referendum.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD)

It is a disappointing day for those of us in the north-west who believe that devolution is an important way of regenerating the region. Will the Minister say a little more about the timetable? In responding to other hon. Members, he said that the money set aside for the devolution campaign in the north-west will be spent on something else. That strongly implies that the delay is not a matter of weeks or months but perhaps years. It is important for those of us in the north-west who support devolution and want the campaign to succeed to have a much clearer idea of the Government's commitment and time scale.

Mr. Raynsford

I hear the hon. Gentleman's comments, although I suspect that his colleague Lord Greaves may not share his view of the north-west. As he will acknowledge, there is disagreement among all parties in the north-west region. One of the factors that we took into account was the different views about all-postal voting—Lord Greaves was diametrically opposed to it in all circumstances. We do not necessarily agree with him, but we have listened.

On the timetable, I have already made it clear that we will report back to the House in September. There was a programme, which included significant pre-booked advertising slots, for the summer. We have made arrangements to postpone all that could be postponed and to substitute fire safety advertisements for "Your Say" advertisements in the north-west and Yorkshire and Humber to make the best use of pre-booked and pre-paid advertising slots. However, there is no question of our not resuming the "Your Say" campaign in Yorkshire and Humber and the north-west once we have clarified the timetable for the referendum.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

I welcome the statement but I am concerned about the fact that my right hon. Friend continues to talk about postponing the referendums instead of admitting the inevitable and saying that they will be dropped. Let me revert to the point that the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) made. There is huge uncertainty in local government, with people leaving their jobs and so on. Is not it important, when the Government revert to the timetable in September, to set out the next steps clearly and definitively.

Mr. Raynsford

I have already made it clear that that is exactly our intention.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con)

Does the Minister accept that there will be widespread delight in Cumbria generally and south lakeland in particular at any setback for the unpopular Labour and Liberal Democrat attempts to parachute unwanted extra bureaucracy into rural areas in the north-west? Will he also acknowledge at last that, behind all the flimflam, the only reason that he has come to the Chamber today to admit that the Government have wasted millions of pounds on a campaign that they have called off at the last minute is that he knows that they would have lost the referendums in the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber? If he believes that he has a chance of winning referendums in those areas, why will not he guarantee to hold them before the next election?

Mr. Raynsford

As the hon. Gentleman has heard me say repeatedly, although there is a postponement, we remain determined to proceed with referendums in all the regions. The Deputy Prime Minister and I have visited Cumbria and our experience has been different from the picture that the hon. Gentleman paints. We encountered many people who perceive genuine advantages in devolution and in local government reorganisation in Cumbria, where several people have understood the logic of the boundary committee proposals. The statement is a sensible response to doubts about all-postal voting, which were expressed especially vehemently in the two regions that we are considering. That is the reason for the postponement but we remain committed to giving people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and the rest of the north-west and Yorkshire and Humber the opportunity to benefit from regional devolution.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab)

It would, I am afraid, be hard to disguise my considerable disappointment at this announcement, but I have genuine sympathy for my right hon. Friend's predicament in coming to the House today. The arguments about taking the weight of this over-centralised country off the northern regions remain, as does the need to guarantee that the northern regions will never again be crushed by a south-east-dominated Tory Government, should there ever be another. Will my right hon. Friend give a commitment that referendums will go ahead, allowing the people of the north-west and of Yorkshire and Humber to exercise their right to decide?

Mr. Raynsford

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He will know from what I have said today and on previous occasions that there is no question of any change in our commitment to giving people in the northern regions—and, indeed, in other regions in England in due course—the opportunity to benefit from devolution. The people of London had that opportunity and they have taken it, against the view of the Conservative party, which opposed it. The people of London voted for it and have benefited from it, and we believe that it is right that people in other English regions should have that opportunity.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con)

It will come as no surprise to my constituents in Eddisbury or to people in the rest of Cheshire that the breathtaking incompetence of the Government has led to this decision, and they will welcome the opportunity to retain the ability to belong to an area that they love. However, this decision does not remove the genuine blight on the excellent Cheshire county council. The word "excellent" was, of course, ascribed to the council by the Minister's own Department and by this Government. Given that this whole idea originated from this Government—but for whom we would not be wasting all this time discussing the issue—will the Minister now order a compensation scheme for all those private individuals and companies from whom money has been raised for the campaign to defeat this ridiculous proposal?

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman seems to be under the illusion that we have abandoned the referendum. We have not; we are simply postponing it. People will be able to take a decision—yes or no—in due course.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con)


Mr. Raynsford

I have clarified the fact, in my original statement and in response to a number of questions, that we shall come back to the House in September, and that we shall then make a statement about the timetable.

On the question of local government reorganisation, the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) will be aware that, in Cheshire, there has been a lot of intelligent interest in the benefits of the different options. Those include having either a single, unitary county or three unitary authorities, each representing areas currently covered by two separate districts. Those options obviously have partisan support on either side, but there has been an intelligent and sensible discussion on them. Most people feel that larger, more powerful unitary authorities can play an important role in improving the quality of local government.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

May I assure my right hon. Friend that many people will be glad to hear that this is a deferment and not a cancellation? Many people in the north-west believe that this is an important opportunity to seize control of certain pots of money and of quangos and other bodies that take important decisions in our region. I hope that, when he comes back to the House in September, my right hon. Friend will be able to tell us that we shall have the referendum in the north-west before I retire at the next general election.

Mr. Raynsford

I certainly intend to bring clarity when we make a further statement in September. I also want my hon. Friend, who has had a distinguished career in the north-west, to be able to campaign actively for a yes vote in a referendum before the next general election, but he will have to wait for our statement in September, when I shall give him absolute clarity about the timetable.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con)

There will be joy in the county of Cheshire and the boroughs of Congleton and Macclesfield at this eleventh-hour conversion—this U-turn—on the part of the Government, which has been made for obvious political reasons. The Minister keeps insisting that this is merely a postponement. May I respectfully suggest that he should pull the rug from under this stupid proposal and, after a decent interval, come to the House and announce that the idea of regionalisation in the north-west is dead and buried?

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Lady clearly wishes there to be rejoicing in the north-west. I am surprised that she is not hoping that that will be about her reselection as the Conservative candidate for her constituency. As I have said, we will report back to the House in September, and we will set out the timetable, but I want to make it clear that we believe that there is an overwhelming case for giving people in all the regions of England the opportunity to have democratic control—if they want it—over functions that are currently discharged by bureaucrats who are not democratically accountable, many of whose institutions were set up by the Conservatives. I am surprised that the hon. Lady advocates the defence of the quango state; I do not think that many other people in her constituency will share her views.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement about Yorkshire and Humber. I accept that it was not an easy announcement to make but, in the circumstances, it was the right one. Sadly, at this stage there is no great enthusiasm in my constituency for a directly elected regional assembly. If my right hon. Friend is putting the issue on the back burner, will he leave it on a low light for the time being? We do not want the prospect of a referendum hanging over us for up to 12 months. If the delay is to be for at least a year, we can look at the proposals for a regional assembly and, I hope, build up more support for them.

Mr. Raynsford

In September, we will set out our proposals for the timetable. It would be premature for me to indicate what our thinking on that is at this stage.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

Did the Minister know yesterday afternoon that this issue was going to be discussed in Cabinet today and that he was likely to have to make this U-turn? None of this makes any sense. Has some polling been done in the north-west and Yorkshire, where the Government know that there is little likelihood of their winning a referendum? They think that they have a chance in the north-east, so perhaps they are going to try one of those bouncing exercises, like the one that they tried in Wales, where the referendum was held a week later than the one in Scotland. The fact is that the people of Ribble Valley do not want this assembly, and the people of the north-west do not want it. It is about time the Government junked this dreadful idea completely.

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman has consistently backed the losing side in referendums—his party was wrong about Scotland, Wales and London—and I would not take his judgment as the right basis on which to move forward. It is sad and surprising that he takes that view, rather than recognising that it is appropriate for Governments to listen to the views expressed in the House and, in certain circumstances, to change their view. We have done that, and I would have thought that most sensible Members would regard it as a sign of intelligent government, in contrast to the interpretation that the hon. Gentleman has put on it.

Forward to